16 Jun Kunming, trains and smoko
After the disappointment of Shenzhen I was well and truly looking forward to finding something more authentic, it seemed like Nanning (and ultimately Kunming) in Yunnan might be that place. So with ridiculously little planning we headed off to catch the train to Guangzhou, and from there to Nanning. There was a train to Guangzhou at about 15:30, and from there to Nanning at about 17:00, plenty of time.
We managed to get to Guangzhou easily enough. Guangzhou, at least what we saw of it, is a city of apartment blocks and smog, not very pretty. Making your way around the train terminus is not easy, and it took us about an hour to find a window to sell us a ticket (no english here), which meant we missed our train to Nanning. The only other train available for the day was the 24 hour direct to Kunming at 21:00, so deciding 24 hours on a train was better than staying in Guangzhou, where it seemed we might be set upon by dodgy street folk at any moment, we booked 2 soft sleepers straight there for about $80 each. This of course meant we had to spend 4 hours waiting at the station, luckily KFC was readily available and squashed a couple hours.
What I expected of China is rapidly becoming apparent, there is a certain lawlessness to some of these places, or rather that they use an adaptation of the existing laws. Smoking is a prime example, the Chinese are champion smokers, second hand smoke is a fallacy here, and smoking inside, next to a no smoking sign, is expected. Toilets, communal seating areas, train carriages, children’s nurseries, no worries, spark up another one. This of course suits me to the ground. So with this in mind, we sat down with hundreds of Chinese commuters, puffing the hours away.
Toilets are becoming less western as well, and aside from the ubiquitous use of the squat, there is another defining factor to the toilets we have experienced so far, and that is that you don’t need to worry about signage to locate one, the smell of urine does a fantastic job of giving its location away, no biodegradable smelly blocks here thank you.
So with our time well spent, we boarded the train to Kunming, the trains are pretty good, smoking is allowed almost everywhere, the toilets were what you expect, the actual bunks are pretty comfy, and the dining cart has a certain charm, although actually getting a drink seems somewhat hit and miss. I ended up going to the other end of the train for a coke, because the guy with the trolley had decided he was done walking and had taken up residence in one of the cabins to, you guessed it, smoke.
The scenery from the train was fantastic, and the number one reason to do this journey via train instead of flying. Mountain ranges are broken up by hastily built domiciles, construction seems to be the number two (after smoking) past time in China, and there are people everywhere. We train-ed through rain and clouds, watching towns come and go, and still people kept smoking.
The Chinese are friendly people, not friendly like Cambodia or Thailand, a different friendly, and they stare A LOT. If you ask for help they will try and do so, although language has been a real challenge, some will quickly walk away when approached, almost like they are embarrassed to be targeted, others shout out greetings with a cheeky smile and giggle, like they have done something naughty. Oh and they spit, A LOT! Old ladies, young men, inside, outside it doesn’t matter, better in than out. I had one friendly gentleman walk up to me, cough and spit, and then like nothing had happened say hello and shake my hand, bear in mind that this was on a train, in the dining carriage, on the floor… When you gotta spit, you gotta spit. The main constant though is the staring, like I have said before, I don’t mind it, it makes me feel kind of special.
We have seen surprisingly few farang on our journeys, probably why the stares. Most travelers in China seem to be Chinese, and with such a large country to explore, why go elsewhere I suppose. We did however have one white chap on our train, a rotund somewhat unpleasant older Australian who seemed on the verge of death, at least I think that is what his younger internet bride (which he told us with some sense of pride) seemed to be hoping for, he also didn’t fail to put the boot into China whenever he could, go home mate. Despite being the only english speakers on board we did our best to keep some distance, which wasn’t too hard as he seemed to have trouble moving around and didn’t leave his cabin much, thank the lord for small miracles. We shared our cabin with a recently married couple on their way to Kunming for a honeymoon, this was about as far as that conversation could go, I think they had quite a few laughs at our expense, not sure why, but I have a feeling the Chinese sense of humor is very different from ours.
The train journey was characterized by one very frightening repeated occurrence, ever few hours the train would seemingly hit something on the rails, coming to an abrupt stop and nearly throwing me across the room (God help anyone on the squat at this time), it would then wait a couple minutes and with a few further jolts be on its way again, I was waiting for the inevitable derailment, but the locals didn’t seem to mind much, aside from a few spilled meals everyone went on as normal, just another mystery of the orient.
24 hours turned into 26 and we reached our destination, Kunming. For some reason I had it in my head that Kunming was going to be like Pai in Thailand, Kunming is in fact more like a mix of Chiang Mai and Sydney, a huge city of 6 million people and easy to get lost in. Arriving at about 12 at night, we were keen to get to a hostel and payed an excited taxi driver way too much to take us to “The Hump” hostel. They only had 2 dorm beds left so we shoved our stuff into the unlockable lockers and went to the communal area to smoke, have a drink and chill. Bed time was a difficult affair, with people coming in and out, switching the light on and off, and generally making the kerfuffel which is nearly impossible to avoid when prepping for bed time. The night was also defined by people outside the window smashing bottles or breaking ice or something, whatever it was I didn’t get much sleep, but then, I’m on holiday so who cares!
The hostel was fully booked the next day which ended up being a blessing in disguise, we moved on to “Upland international Youth Hostel”, for about $12 each a night (twin room) the place is great, clean, quiet and friendly. Aside from the enormous pillow, it is a great place to chill, and chill we have for the last couple days, there still aren’t many farang about, even in the hostels the majority of people are Chinese, it’s kinda nice.
Today we played a bit of pool, and then went for a wander in the park, there seemed to be some sort of fair and it was fairly packed, crowds gathered around dancing circles of funnily dressed people, and indecipherable pamphlets were hand out indiscriminately to passers by,the day was somewhat unremarkable aside from the meal.
Miscommunication is never so much an issue as when sitting down for chow. We ordered a main dish to share, and thinking it wouldnt be much ordered a starter. Well, the starter was the size of a main meal, and then the main meal came out, and good lord who eats that much! It was some sort of fish dish and only a photo could do the scale of it justice.
I don’t think we will be spending too much time in Kunming. There are a few things to do but both Marty and I are keen to get away from the cities for awhile, so the next stop might be Dali, an artist town somewhere in the Chinese outback.
China is growing on me more and more, I like the difficulties and the completely different outlook on etiquette, and seemingly life in general, I like being an oddity and the humor that comes with it. Now if only I could find some suckling pig, sweet and sour pork, and maybe even Labrador steak, I would truly be in eastern heaven.